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Release of MT's private files for 1987 - (6) Life at No.10

There were lighter moments in 1987, but also some dark ones. With good reason, Ingham talked of MT having had "a hard autumn" that year.

1987: CHANGiNG FACES

Crash course
Briefing on punk for MT's interview on Smash Hits, Feb 1987

Every year saw the departure of familiar faces from No.10, naturally enough, an experience MT often found wrenching. But something new was beginning to happen as her term in office grew longer and longer: she was beginning to outlast people in a different sense, seeing even senior figures in and out. And as luck would have it, three of these departures fell in a single week in December 1987. Sir Antony Duff, Director-General of the Security Service (MI5), her third Director-General, got a lunch in the suitably private surroundings of Chequers. Then there was dinner for many of the same people two days later at No.10, marking the retirement of Britain’s most senior official, Sir Robert Armstrong, Cabinet Secretary and Head of Civil Service. He had been her second Cabinet Secretary. The dinner was focused on music, a lifelong passion which was also a bond between her and Armstrong. His father had conducted her as a young chorister in Oxford - indeed he was at the dinner - and there was a charming tradition they had created of an annual trip to the opera together, the PM going as the Cabinet Secretary’s guest. A full roster of Armstrong’s living ministerial chiefs would have included Jenkins and Heath – in fact Heath was the politician he was probably closest to, but both were missing, sadly though unsurprisingly. A speech was drafted by Nigel Wicks, a few jokes added by Armstrong’s successor Robin Butler and the text handed to MT for polishing. The speech pointed out mischeviously that Cabinet Secretaries tended to last longer in office than Prime Ministers, to which she added “But that was when men PMs were the fashion!”

That week Willie Whitelaw suffered a minor stroke at a carol service in St Margaret’s and made the decision to stand down. They had arrived in power on the same day, of course, on 4 May 1979. Only Howe could now make the same claim among cabinet ministers. As always faced with illness, MT was faultlessly solicitous and thoughtful, writing him a handwritten note that evening to which he attached enormous importance, indeed he even credited much of his recovery to its effects, an emotional if not a medical truth perhaps. Although Whitelaw's political influence had long been waning, his departure still weakened MT, removing a mechanism by which problems could sometimes be brokered, particularly those involving personnel.

In the Private Office, economics Private Secretary David Norgrove left – and left not simply No.10 but government service outright. He moved on to become a senior executive at M&S. Whatever his personal reasons, a trend was noticed at this time for No.10 Private Secretaries to find relationships with their ‘home’ departments so strained that returning after their stint was difficult, a mark of MT's deteriorating relationships with senior colleagues like Lawson. That problem in turn made recruitment to the No.10 Private Office harder, of course. Norgrove got the usual exit interview with MT and the rather unoriginal gifts of a signed photo and a clock. Perhaps that is what he asked for. Another No.10 retiree that year was Mrs Bumpus. She is not a well-known figure by the standards of the above though she was a familiar face in the building all the same: she had cleaned the Cabinet Room, but arthritis got the better of her. MT sent her a nice letter, and there will surely have been a few good presents as well. For once it is doubtful if MT was the long-lasting one: Mrs B almost certainly arrived many years before Mrs T.

Longevity had international reach too. So close was her relationship with the US government that she was sending farewell letters to the outgoing chairman of the Fed, Paul Volcker (appointed Aug 1979) and Defense Secretary, Cap Weinberger (Jan 1981), the latter perfect of its kind, written almost as if he was one of her ministerial soulmates, a sort of Keith Joseph of the West.

1987: THE HARD AUTUMN

Sadly 1987 saw many disasters and horrors, some natural, some anything but. Ingham in a minute for her on the press talked of her having had a “hard autumn”, and that was partly what he meant.

In fact of course they came all year, the first in February when a British ferry capsized leaving Zeebrugge, killing 193. MT visited at once and was deeply upset. Her letters of thanks to the Belgian ministers and officials she dealt with are beautifully judged, and express a European sentiment too. The Bruges speech, in September 1988, is understandably remembered for its politics, but she began it with a tribute to the help and care British people received that day. There is nothing in her files recording her reaction to Nick Ridley’s tasteless Commons gibe about going to sea with your bow doors open, but one can see how much it would have jarred with her. Ridley’s ambition was to be Chancellor, but she was always clear in private conversation that his tendency to create this kind of problem was an absolute bar to the highest offices. Her Press Digest for the day report what the papers said about him.

There were more to come:

  • 19 Aug – Hungerford, the shooting spree by Michael Ryan, a thing unfamiliar in Britain at that time. She visited again, there are more letters, some painful to read. One striking feature is what you might call the absence of distance: MT did not simply express grief, she put herself into the position of the people who hid from Ryan as he stalked the streets shooting anyone he found.
  • 15/16 Oct - the Great Storm, which hit southern England especially hard. She wrote movingly to Betty Hussey, owner of Scotney Castle whose trees were badly hit. For many years the Thatchers rented a flat there, which they gave up just before the election and rather missed (DT used to call it ‘home’).
  • The Enniskillen bombing on 8 Nov 1987 – the IRA bombing of a remembrance day ceremony killed 12 and wounded many more. MT attended a second service on 22 Nov, to complete the remembrance. The security necessary was obviously nightmarish for the police, but it was a powerfully symbolic gesture and typical of her.
  • The King’s Cross fire on 18 Nov 1987 killed 31 and left many with terrible burns. It took 16 years to identify the last victim. MT visited the scene three days before her trip to Enniskillen.

One other small thing made the autumn harder still. Attending the annual royal reception for the Diplomatic Corps at Buckingham Palace on 24 Nov, which was very hot, MT felt faint. She left 20 minutes early and went to bed a little earlier than usual too. The story got into the press in a diary item on 28 Nov and instantly unhelpful health rumours started. In fact MT was always prone to fainting and there seems to have been no health problem at all, but a curious tale surfaced a few years ago in a royal biography, credited to a royal present. MT is supposed to have fainted at her first meeting with the Queen many years before, and the story goes that the Queen on this occasion, in 1987, seeing her unwell swept past commenting: “Oh look, she’s keeled over again” (Robert Hardman, Our Queen (2011) – offered without vouching in any way for it).

1987: SOFT TOUCHES

Press Officers since the beginning of time have been on the look out for ways to soften the hard edges of power. Egyptian Pharaohs would probably have made encouraging visits to half completed pyramids and chatted in a friendly style to slave labour – at least, if No.10 had had anything to do with it. It was trivialising, of course, but the media game had to be played. MT accepted the business with good grace, most of the time at least.

The files are full of contrived softening touches as the election came into view, generated by an ever more intensive diary-making operation.

  • One from July 1986, released this year, was a wonderful confection – MT visited Richard Branson’s powerboat Virgin Challenger II which had just crossed the Atlantic at high speed and won the Blue Riband. She handed out Paddington Bears with a signed label to disabled children before letting him steer the boat with her in it a few miles along the Thames back toward Westminster. The sun shone, naturally. The following year, on another record breaking event, Branson’s balloon crashed into the sea and she found herself defending the cost of a government rescue of the damp billionaire, the only kind of bail-out she believed in.
  • She was persuaded to appear on some children’s tv at the beginning of the year, including the BBC’s Saturday Superstore. The Press Office briefing for her appearance carried an ominous warning - “You may not enjoy this interview” - and if proof were needed, included an appendix with a short history of punk. Writing firmly in the past tense, and noting comfortingly that punk was at its most extreme phase under the previous Labour Government – not a bad point actually – the Press Office went on to call it “a very basic musical style featuring a strange bunch of anti-establishment acts, most famous of which were THE SEX PISTOLS with songs such as GOD SAVE THE QUEEN and ANARCHY IN THE U.K.” Unfamiliar music figured later in the year when MT paid a short visit to Jamaica en route home from Washington in July. Her speech for lunch with Prime Minister Edward Seaga, drafted by Powell, included a reference to Bob Marley and he sent her the words of Get Up, Stand Up.
  • In Jan 1987 MT appeared on a BBC Science programme called Take Nobody’s Word For It with Professor Ian Fells of Newcastle University, an amiable research scientist and TV boffin. The purpose was to demonstrate some basic chemistry, including a recipe for bread. Here the Press Office missed a trick. If you offer the viewing public a recipe, on a TV programme with a title like that, it had better be a good one - ideally foolproof. Unfortunately this one wasn’t. Horrified officials found themselves receiving letters from people complaining that they had tried the Prime Minister’s bread. One said that it was “just like chewing gum”, another that “it was bad enough to cry”. Thankfully Professor Fells agreed to take over the correspondence. Later that year the Roux brothers sent her a book of patisserie recipes, though history does not record whether the gift had any connection to Breadgate.

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